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tv   Dateline NBC  NBC  March 1, 2014 10:00pm-11:01pm PST

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thank goodness this is finally over. [ applause ] >> finally, he is free. >> oh, my god. oh, i love you. >> tonight, go inside ryan ferguson's journey from prison to a new life. >> it's very strange, it's surreal. >> it's a story "dateline" has followed for years. a young college student accused of a crime he swore he didn't commit. >> that was scary. that this can actually happen to someone. >> he was convicted of a halloween night murder there were fingerprints, footprints, strands of hair. but here's the thing -- none of it matched his. so why did he end up in prison?
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that's the question that still haunts. >> he said i remember things i didn't remember. >> locked behind bars for almost a decade. >> everything you love has been taken from you. >> now, the ending he's been dreaming of. >> ryan! >> the reunion with grandparents he was afraid he'd never see again. back with his family. in the place he loves. >> i'm lester holt and this is "dateline." here's keith morrison with a story of "the wrong man." >> no one knows how many there are. sprinkled through the populations of america's bursting prisons. the innocent, the falsely convicted. the tiny percentage we have to hope. most with names we'll never know. but sometimes, rarely, we learn their stories.
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>> ryan ferguson will soon be a free man. >> like the one about ryan ferguson, the young man in the news recently. >> for a missouri man whose murder conviction has now been overturned. >> ryan ferguson is now a free man. his conviction wiped clean. >> easy, you'd think, to hear the news, show he's innocent. out he comes. but that as you're about to see, isn't how it works in the 21st century america. ryan ferguson has been a preoccupation here at "dateline" for years. the prison here on no more victim's row, our familiar destination. >> it's been what, how many years? >> 40 years. >> tonight we'll show you the inside story of his long saga. and how he went from college student to convicted murderer to prisoner. and finally, to tourist in his own hometown. >> you recognize your town? >> i do recognize it. i've always wondered where this
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particular building over here was, you know. i see it on tv a lot. >> it's been a trip, all right. sort of trip that on the wrong night at the wrong place, could happen to almost anyone. this is the cautionary tale of what happened to him. >> easy to get convicted of something. >> absolutely. >> lard to get out again. >> incredibly difficult. >> the night back when it all began was a rare combination. halloween under a full moon. it was 2001. a college town. columbia, missouri. ryan ferguson and chuck erickson, both at 17, considerably under age, had gained entry to a college bar, a hangout that is pretty young to be able to get into a club. >> it's a college town. university. it's the way that people live in college towns. everybody wants to be in the mix, hang out, yeah. >> it was ryan's older sister, kelly, who helped sneak them in. >> i remember seeing ryan and chuck one time in there.
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and ryan was talking to a flamingo-dressed girl. he was very tall. he seemed to be having lots of fun. >> outside, raucous music carried through empty streets until closing time, 1:30 a.m. four blocks away, it was nearly quitting time at the local paper, the columbia "daily tribune." the sports editor headed to his car after a long day at work. it was just about 2:30 when two night janitors from the paper called 911. >> what is your emergency? >> we need someone here at the daily tribune. >> what's going on? >> there's somebody hurt outside. >> daily tribune was suddenly at the deadly center of the biggest story in town. >> the sports editor, chip, laying in the ground, in a pool of blood. >> just rocks you back on your heels. >> managing editor jim robertson got the call. his friend, heidi, the belonged sports editor, was dead. >> we were in shock.
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the whole -- news room, the whole building was in shock. because everybody knew kim. >> it wasn't pretty, it never is. somebody smashed kent's head, maybe with something like a tire iron and strangled him. investigators found fingerprints on his car and in the victim's hand, strands of hair, which he must surely have pulled from the head of his killer, or perhaps two killers? in that call to 911, those night custodians reported this -- >> i saw two guys in the area. >> were they white or black? >> white. i'd say 19, 20. >> do you remember any kind of description at all on these guys? >> i don't, they were close to six feet. thin. one of them had blonde hair. really, really short blonde hair. >> the trail of bloody footprints, two sets of footprints, led from the parking lot towards a college dorm a few blocks away. but a search there turned up nobody suspicious. ditto for this composite sketch.
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based on the janitors' descriptions. they vanished like a pair of ghosts at halloween. >> in columbia, i don't think anybody could have gotten around and not heard about it. >> this is leslie, ryan's mother. >> when you live in a town and there's been a murder and they don't know who committed the murder, you're wondering, you know, is this person still out there? >> but, life goes on. ryan went to college. chuck struggled. booze, drugs, the usual cocktail of trouble. and then -- two years after kent's murder, the tribune ran an anniversary story printed what details were known, all over again. and a couple of months later, chuck was in the sauce and he ran into ryan, home from college for the holidays. >> he says, hey, man, you remember hanging out on halloween a couple of years back going to the club? yeah. he says, do you know if i had anything to do with that crime? that was committed against this guy who was killed.
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and at that point you know i'm kind of freaked out. it's night, i'm outside, it's past midnight. and that guy was talking about -- do i know if he's involved in a murder. >> ryan shook it off. he said, it had to be chuck's idea of a morbid joke. but it wasn't. chuck told other friends about his weird dream-like notion. and before long, someone took him seriously. and called the police. >> we now they're reported at the tribune that was murdered and no one found out who it was? >> uh-huh. >> i know what happened and i know the murderer. >> a dead case came roaring back to life. what happened next? now that's where the real mystery lies. when we come back you'll hear two very different stories about that night. one from chuck erickson -- >> i remember seeing ryan hovering over this guy and i think i asked him if he was dead and ryan said yes, he's dead.
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>> another, from ryan ferguson. >> i had nothing to do with this crime whatsoever.
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for two years, they had come up empty. not one solid lead in the kent hidel murder. and now was this kid, so they had been told, who knew the whole story, chapter and verse. >> let's go over it just one more time, okay? >> they brought chuck erickson in for questioning. but in the chair, he went all vague on them. so was he backing out? >> i can just be sitting here advocating all of this -- like, i don't know. i don't. >> but they talked. there are ways to ask questions. and during a long conversation, chuck seemed to remember a whole
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lot of things. detailed things. >> where did you hit him? >> had the head. >> in the head with? >> a wrench. >> did you see blood coming from him? >> yeah. >> okay. >> the motive, he said, was robbery. money to buy more drinks back at the bar. >> was this at closing time? >> this was before that. >> okay. >> it made perfect sense, fair-skinned teenager drinking a few blocks from the newspaper. but remember, the custodian saw two young men in the parking lot, and the police tracked two sets of bloody footprints. and so here it was. the moment ryan ferguson's fate was sealed. >> i remember seeing ryan hovering over this guy, and i think i asked him if he was dead and ryan said, "yeah, he's dead." >> things began happening very, very fast. ryan, remember, was at college, was living in a different town. and was puzzled when a strange van followed him home from school.
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it was when he pulled up to his door that he was surrounded by police. >> what happened when you got to the police department? >> they tell me they're arresting me on suspicion of a murder. and at that point, i'm like, oh, my goodness. this is absurd. >> they asked about that halloween, and ryan told detectives he left the bar at closing time, 1:30 a.m., and dropped chuck off at his house, and went home to bed. >> i knew i had nothing to do with this crime whatsoever. >> but even as he sat here in an interrogation room, denying anything to do with the murder, the news of the arrest was on tv. >> there is a big break tonight in the murder of sports editor kent heighthold. >> ryan's father got the news from a reporter and a friend watching it tv called leslie. >> my first reaction was just oh -- i said, "well, it's not our ryan. it has to be another ryan ferguson." >> impossible. not sweet, loving, loveable
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ryan. not a violent bone in that boy's body, said his father bill. >> he just didn't have that sort of a mentality. and so all of a sudden for him to be accused of a heinous murder is beyond comprehension. >> you have the right to remain silent. >> but just like that, ryan ferguson slipped from fair-free college student to the town's most heinous murder suspect, and still he failed to understand what was in store. as he waited eagerly for his trial. convinced a jury would see that he was telling the truth. and chuck was clearly confused. >> isn't it possible that you did have enough to drink that you had repressed your own memories? that you're just in a fog, you didn't know what you had done. >> absolutely not. absolutely not. >> pretty sure of that memory of yours. >> absolutely. no doubt. i know exactly what i did that night. >> chuck's fate was determined quickly. he took a plea deal, 25 years, in exchange for agreeing to testify against ryan.
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and that's what he did. at ryan's trial in 2005, chuck reenacted what he said they did to poor kent heighthold. hit him on the head with a tool from ryan's car. then ryan strangled him with a belt. >> he had his foot on his back, on the victim's back. and he was pulling him up on the belt. like this. >> strangling to death. >> the prosecutor didn't present dna or fingerprint evidence linking ryan to the bloody scene, but perhaps he didn't have to, because he had chuck. >> i've got to tell what that man did. >> and he had. this man. his name? >> jerry trump. >> my want to remember that name. jerry trump is one of the janitors who called 911 the night of the murder. the man who reported seeing two young men lurking near the victim's car. >> do you remember any kind of description at all on these guys? >> i don't. they were close to 6 feet.
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>> at the time of the killing, trump told police, he wasn't sure he had been able to pick out a suspect. but now in court -- his memory had improved. >> would you point to that individual or individuals, please? >> yes. >> ryan took the stand in his own defense. a wringing and determined denial. >> did you go to the "tribune" parking lot? >> no. >> did you see kent heighthold anywhere? >> no. >> did you participate in this murder? >> no. >> how could a jury believe otherwise, he thought? there was evidence of the crime scene, after all. footprints, fingerprints, the hair in the victim's hand. and none of it matched ryan. it was a friday evening when the jury went out. and that same friday evening when they came back. a brisk, preweekend deliberation. >> we the jury find defend ryan william ferguson guilty of murder in the second degree. >> he didn't show much on the outside. but now, finally, he understood what had happened to him.
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the sentence was 40 years. and the heightholds felt they were getting that thing people like to call closure. >> i'm glad that finally i can remember him as just my dad and someone that was loved by everyone. >> kent heighthold's paper put the story to bed, perhaps for good. >> i think everyone will feel some relief now that it's over. >> but ryan's family felt the polar opposite of relief. thein dull jent sister who sneaked him into the bar wrestled with debilitating remor remorse. >> of course, i feel very guilty, because not only was he down there because of me, but i also got him into a bar under age. so it just looks really bad. >> and ryan's parents slipped into a world in which life did not make sense at all. >> you almost feel like you're stepping back from yourself. >> yeah. >> and you're watching other people, yourselves, going through this. because it can't really be your life. it can't be you going through this.
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>> but no one in this case was about to give up. ryan's dad fights to prove his innocence and finds a witness with a new story. >> and i said, so, the person you saw, was that ryan
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it had all happened so fast. the arrest, the trial, the verdict. but now a convicted murderer at 21, ryan ferguson was, as they say, down for a very long time. >> they give you, what, how many years? >> 40 years. >> 40 years. >> 40 years. >> life was on hold for his stunned family. >> the whole they think thing is just so scary to me. that this could actually happen to someone. >> how do you get over a thing like that? >> you don't get over it. you get busy. that's what we did. we're not over it. we're just busy. >> busy from that day forth, trying to prove what was plainly obvious to them. that ryan was innocent. his dad, bill, was certain there was evidence out there, if only he could find it. one little piece of information could break the whole thing. >> make a difference. >> it was often nighttime when bill ferguson wandered through
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columbia's downtown, returning to where the murder happened, puzzling out clues. >> what is it about this place that tells you your son didn't do it? >> well, it's not so much this place. it's what happened it at this place. the bar closed at 1:30. >> why would ryan and chuck commit a murder and robbery after 2:00 a.m., to go back to a bar that had been closed for an hour? and there was something else that kept nagging at bill. that 911 call the night of the murder. >> we need someone here at the "daily tribune." >> only the male janitor identified ryan. what about the woman on the 911 tape? she testified, too, but on the stand, she wasn't asked to point out ryan. >> i became very suspicious. i'm saying, wait a second, she's the witness. >> bill tracked her down. and here was the kind of bingo bill was looking for. >> and i said, so, the person you saw, the person you do the composite of, was that ryan ferguson and she said no, was that. and i said was it chuck harrison and she said no, it was. >> she was sure of that?
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>> she was absolutely sure. and she told prosecutors this years earlier, before the trial. with that new information, ryan filed an appeal. and his dad was hopeful. >> we just know, if we could ever get in the courtroom and present the evidence, well, ryan will be found innocent. >> but as the fergusons were about to find out, for the first but not last time, overturning a murder conviction is a very difficult thing to do. the appeal was denied. that new story from the janitor deemed not credible. but give up? no. even when they ran through their life savings, even when a raft of legal appeals went nowhere. >> every time, they come back and they deny any motion or they deny any appeal, that's just my thought on it. you've just taken another two or three years of my life for nothing. >> and still, nearly four decades to go.
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you have to serve that, you come out a senior citizen if you're still alive. >> unfortunately. but at the end of the day, you never know what's going to happen. >> well, you don't, do you? just when ryan seemed to be almost out of options all together, an attorney named kathleen zelner agreed to take a hook at the case. she met with ryan. and decided to take it on. pro bono. >> nothing is as riveting as this. when the trial has been lost, everything has been lost, and you've got somebody in there that is innocent. it's like the ultimate challenge, i think. >> what made you think this person definitely is innocent? >> it was really ryan. it was really my interaction with him. >> zelner has won the release of 15 men wrongfully convicted of murder and rape. but this? she had never seen anything like it. because in this strange case, she thought, there were two innocent men. ryan and chuck, his accuser, a
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confused young man. but not a killer. >> what was put on at this trial was a completely fabricated case, and the reason it worked was because the jury could not understand why someone would confess to a crime they didn't commit and then take a 25-year sentence. >> and a verdict rendered by a jury of one's peers carries tremendous weight. it's almost sacred in the legal system. to overturn ryan's conviction, zelner would have to find new information that the jurors could not have heard. or so that the prosecution in the case was not fair. she had just begun investigating when a gift arrived. sort of thing an attorney can only dream about. it was a letter. not to her. to ryan. >> i get this letter, and it's from charles erickson. and i'm like, what could this possibly say? >> oh, now this -- this could change everything.
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just maybe not in the way anyone expected. coming up. >> i lied and said i remembered things i didn't remember. >> chuck erickson is back on the stand. but he's not the only one who has changed his story. >> i would like to have forgiveness from ryan. and his family. [ sports announcer ] here's another one, alyson dudek.
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hales corners, wisconsin. nice pass by alyson dudek. can she hang on to that spot? and she does! [ male announcer ] with the u-verse wireless receiver,
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♪ ryan ferguson had been behind bars for five years. put there after chuck erickson told a tale of murder, said they killed a man together, one halloween night. this condemning finger-stabbing accusation in court was the last time ryan had seen or heard a single word from his former friend. so it was a shock the day that letter arrived in the prison mailroom from chuck. >> basically just says "send an attorney, and don't tell anybody that you're doing it." >> send an attorney to see him? >> yeah. >> that was in 2009. and as luck would have it, kathleen zelner had just signed on to the case. she went to the prison where chuck was doing time, and he handed her a written statement. >> i thought, oh, my god, he's retelling the story, but now ryan is not the killer.
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>> he read his new version of events on camera. >> i made up what i said about ryan being on top of the victim. >> are you saying today that you are the sole murderer of kent heigthol heitholt? >> that's correct. >> it must have been a great day for you. >> it was. but i know how much work it is to do these things. to me, it was just the first step. >> and it was puzzling too. zelner was absolutely convinced neither chuck nor ryan was anywhere near the murder. she and ryan believed chuck was still confused. >> it shows the reality that he doesn't know what happened that night. and he's trying to put these things together. >> did that change everything? not really. the attorney did more research, interviewed other witnesses, filed paperwork. two years went by. then in the spring of 2012, a hearing was called. ryan's dad physically carried boxes of documents into the
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courthouse. attorney kathleen zelner and her team huddled at a nearby hotel to prepare. >> ms. zelner? >> your honor, we're here after -- >> the next morning, his lawyer presented several pieces of evidence not heard before. like this story from a girl who saw ryan and chuck drive off at 1:30, just as ryan had always claimed. >> and did you actually see them drive away? >> yes. >> but the core of the case was right here. chuck erickson, now face-to-face with ryan for the first time since the trial. >> this testimony that he made up during the trial took my life. and, you know, it's crazy to believe that his testimony now could give my life back. >> in that taped statement back in the prison, chuck said quite clearly that he, not ryan, killed kent heitholt. was that the story he would tell today? >> do you remember killing mr.
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heitholt? >> no. >> as he spoke, it became perfectly clear, his story had changed again. now chuck was saying he had no memory at all of what he and ryan did on halloween night. blacked out after drinking too much. and more important, he never did remember. >> i lied and said i remembered things i didn't remember, and said he did stuff that i don't remember him doing or me doing. >> how can he not know? committing or not committing a murder? how can you not know? >> that is a very baffling thing to myself and everyone, i think. he was asleep that night. and i dropped him off at home. >> so what to make of the change? well, ryan always believed chuck was innocent too. his original confession, false. now in court, zelner argued that when he confessed and implicated ryan, chuck was a confused young man, parroting back information
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anover zealous interrogator fed him. one example, the murder weapon. >> pulling up on the belt. >> so confident during the trial it was a bet. but during his interrogation, he seemed to have no idea. so they told him. >> i know what it was. >> i think it was a shirt or something. >> well, i know it wasn't a shirt. >> maybe a bungy cord or i don't -- something from his car. >> well, we know for a fact that his belt was ripped off of his pants and he was strangled with his belt. >> really? >> yeah. did you see a belt in ryan's hand? something that looked like a rope, maybe or a bungee cord? >> i don't know. >> okay. >> and when his memory continued to be foggy -- >> now, you better start thinking very clearly. >> okay. >> because it's you that is on this chopping block. >> why did you play that little piece of interrogation? >> because it shows the tremendous pressure he was under
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when charles erickson is explaining, i don't have a memory of this. he's like, i don't want to hear any of that. it's basically you're going oh to have a memory of it. i'm going to tell you what the memory is. he's right in his face. >> i was blocked out. >> now, on the stand, chuck said he wanted to take it all back. >> i don't want to die, you know, knowing that i did the wrong thing. >> ryan's attorney knew, of course, that chuck and his ever-evolving story might be hard to believe. so she had one more card ready to play. >> would you state your full name -- >> quite literally. >> jerry trump. >> the trump card. remember that night janitor of the newspaper, the man who pointed an accusing finger at ryan during his 2005 trial, jerry trump? >> yes. >> now zelner asked trump a simple question. how in the heaven's name was he able to conclusively identify ryan as the young man he said he saw in a dark, unlit parking lot years earlier? and here it came. a startling accusation. jerry trump said he was just
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doing what he thought the prosecutor wanted him to do. >> he said, we're fairly sure we have the two guys that killed mr. heitholt. and we need you to identify them. >> and so trump said he lied. >> and when you pointed to ryan ferguson in the courtroom and you said that's the person you saw at the "columbia tribune" parking lot, was that true or false? >> false. >> so are you testifying with the understanding that by telling this testimony you could be charged with perjury? >> yes, i am. >> do you anticipate or want anything for doing this? >> yes. i'd like to have forgiveness from ryan. and his family. >> ryan's attorney had no further questions. let the emotion hang in the air.
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and then it was the state's turn. did the assistant attorney general admit an error, sending everybody, including ryan, home? >> what you will see this week is a series of evolving lies. >> no. the state stood by the original prosecution. categorically deny jerry trump's claims. and challenge chuck erickson on the stand. >> you're saying you have a willingness to say anything you need to say to get ryan out. >> at the time i did. am i telling the truth now? i'm telling the truth now. do i expect you to believe it? no, i don't expect you to believe it. >> would who the judge believe? ryan went back to prison and waited. one month, two, four, six months he counted from his cell. he thought about his grandparents in florida. allowed himself to hope he would see them soon. and then it was halloween again. 2012. the 11th anniversary of kent heitholt's murder. a guard came to see ryan. his lawyer was on the phone. >> they called me back there,
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and you have an attorney phone call. so i figured -- >> an attorney phone call. >> yes. >> this could be it. >> this could be it, yeah. >> right then, what was it like? >> couldn't even really think, you know. i was just -- just had to put like one foot ahead of the other. and then i got on the phone with my attorney, and the first thing she says is i've got a bit of bad news. and basically i didn't hear anything after that. >> coming up. >> it was the most difficult thing i've -- i ever heard. >> for ryan, a terrible blow. >> he was at the end of the rope. it was almost over for him. >> but team ryan decides to go for a legal ♪
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♪ you got that medley crunch 1 in 3 kids have been cyber bullied, and it hurts just as much on the web as it does in person. so teach your children to treat others online the way they want to be treated themselves. do your part to help stop cyber bullying. the more you know. ♪ ryan ferguson walked prison hallways with a lighter step after his lawyers presented what he believed was a compelling case for overturning his murder conviction. >> ryan ferguson is actually innocent. >> and then, months later, he was called to the prison phone, and kathleen zelner broke the news. the appeal was denied. time, once again, stood still. >> it was inscribable. testifies devastating, really,
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because everything that you care about, everything that you believed in, everything you love has been taken from you for no reason. >> a judge has denied convicted killer, ryan ferguson, a new trial. >> and in the same way he found out his son had been arrested for murder, bill ferguson learned ryan's fate from a reporter. >> and she says, "oh, i just want to know if you want to make a comment on judge green's ruling." and i'm thinking, what? what ruling? and she goes, "well, you know, he just -- my god, you don't know, do you?" i go "no." and -- >> that was it. >> yeah. >> finally, i got ahold of my dad, and, you know, he was trying to hold it together. but even his voice cracked, you know. and that was -- i don't know, the worst sound i've ever heard in my life. it was the most difficult thing i've -- i ever heard. >> and then you were locked
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down. >> yeah. it's just at that moment, you feel so empty, and so alone. and hopeless. you know? >> and why? in his ruling, the judge said chuck erickson was completely fabricating the stories he told at the hearing. and while the judge did believe jerry trump, he said that his lie was immaterial, not enough to overturn the guilty verdict. >> is there any point when you thought this ain't gonna happen? >> after the witnesses recanted and the court said it wasn't enough, i got very concerned. so i felt like it was a life and death situation. >> one more legal maneuver to try. a habeas petition, filed in a higher court, a missouri court of appeals. zelner knew it was a long shot. the vast majority of these fail. >> he was at the end of the rope. last gasp. it was almost over for him. >> so she did it. filed the paperwork, 154 pages
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of it. and waited. and inside the state prison, ryan ferguson had learned not to expect anything. >> are you allowing yourself to imagine, you know, next week, next month, next year, what i'll do on the outside? >> it's a long way away right now. >> but outside the walls, far away from the courts in the virtual world, something funny was happening. support for ryan was growing. friends and family and complete strangers from around the world were posting messages and photos demanding, free ryan ferguson. an online petition gathered signatures by the thousands. then, just this past september, a glimmer of hope. ryan had been granted a hearing. >> the honorable court of appeals of the western -- >> his lawyer had just 15 minutes to tell ryan's story to a panel of three judges. about the witnesses who said they lied. the mistakes by the prosecution. and the crime scene that told a
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tale of innocence. >> mr. ferguson and mr. erickson were excluded from the physical evidence. >> was it a big day for you? >> it was. a big day for us. a big day for ryan. >> this time, ryan's dad decided he wasn't going to sit around and wait for the judges to rule. he set off on a road trip to share his s. e faith in his son. >> and they found the dna did not match him at all. in a car emblazoned with his son's face, and those same two words "free ryan." then one cold november morning, just after another halloween, the ferguson's learned it was decision day. no state courtroom this time. the news came in the most modern of ways, hovering over a computer screen. bill and leslie, together, logged on to the appeals court website. >> we were doing the same thing, refresh, refresh. and then it flashed up on the screen and just for a split second, i saw ryan.
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coming up. the news ryan and his family have been waiting for, for so long. >> i'm like, man, i'm just trying not to have a heart attack. >> and the reunion he's been ♪ ♪ turn around
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♪ every now and then i get a little bit hungry ♪ ♪ and there's nothing really good around ♪ ♪ turn around ♪ every now and then i get a little bit tired ♪ ♪ of living off the taste of the air ♪ ♪ turn around, barry ♪ finally, i have a manly chocolatey snack ♪ ♪ and fiber so my wife won't give me any more flack ♪ ♪ i finally found the right snack ♪ ♪
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♪ ryan ferguson's parents huddled over the computer, couldn't quite get the web page to settle down. >> it seemed like an eternity. i was like, bring it up, bring it up, where is it? >> and then, suddenly, here it was. and it was stunning. the news for the first time in their family's decade-long saga
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was good. as good as good could be. >> it was amazing. amazing to read that. >> ryan ferguson's conviction was thrown out by the court. citing a pattern of evidence withheld by the prosecution. ferguson's conviction, said the judges, all the judges, is not a verdict worthy of either judicial or public confidence. >> we had been thinking about it and dreaming it about it for nine and a half years. >> in prison, ryan got word to call his attorney, kathleen skblelner. >> i'm like, man, i'm just trying not to have a herriart attack. >> she told him the court had overturned his guilty verdict. what feeling comes over you when you hear that? >> it was just pure relief. and that's all i could feel at that moment, was just, you know, thank goodness this is finally over. >> but, of course, it wasn't completely over. doesn't work that way. ryan's conviction was thrown out, but the way the law works, the prosecutor could rearrest
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him, charge him with murder, and try him again. until the prosecutor decided whether to charge him or not, ryan had to stay in prison, and wait. >> this battle needs to stop. >> here he was. no longer a felon. but still behind, bars. >> come on, sit in. let's talk. >> well, he waited. we waited with him. the state's decision, let him go or not, was due this very day, any minute. any hour. >> high one minute, and then just really cautious and fearful the next minute. it's a roller coaster, really. >> we posed for pictures. joked around a bit. guns, yeah. ryan, knowing that any second now the decision might come down. and then our allotted time was up. they let him back to his cell. and not much more than an hour later, this.
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from a one-sentence press release. the attorney general's office will not retry or pursue further action against ryan ferguson at this time. >> it was unbelievable. >> kathleen zelner rushed to the prison. but they were separated by glass. she wasn't allowed in to talk to him, and he didn't know. she scribbled on a piece of blue paper, held it up to the window. it is over. >> he was transformed as a person just in those few seconds. >> ryan's parents arrived to scoop him up and take him home. but were prevented from entering the prison grounds. >> i told you, never believe anything until ryan is actually in the car. >> but was it really finally over? >> inside the prison, where ryan had put on street clothes, he was abruptly told, take them off. they put him back in the orange jumpsuit in shackles, loaded him into the van, drove him to the boone county jail. >> i felt like then this is --
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this is beyond belief, this is happening. >> ryan, terrified, feared he was to be arrested again. >> nobody knew what they were doing. i think everyone was trying to do the right thing, but everyone was worried about procedure. >> eventually, the authorities straightened things out and it happened. it ended. 12 years and 12 days after that halloween moon, it was truly and finally over. [ cheers and applause ] >> ryan rode to freedom in the ryanmobile, the car his father had driven all over the country to bring attention to his cause. [ cheers and applause ] in just a few hours, ryan had come out of a prison cell and now confronted the packed hall and came off like a practiced politician. [ cheers and applause ]
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>> we love you, ryan! >> thank you. >> aware that others weren't so lucky. >> to get arrested and to get charged for a crime you didn't commit, it's incredibly easy. and you can lose your life very fast. but to get out of prison, it takes an army, as you can see. and an incredible group of individuals, family, friends. >> by his side, his girlfriend, his mother, and his father, bill, without whom none of this ever could or would have happened. >> you know, i just have the most amazing family and i love you guys so much. >> his sister, who helped the little brother sneak into the bar that halloween 12 years ago, was away. couldn't be here. >> kelly! >> there she is. >> until, suddenly, there she was. >> and the world-class lawyer. >> she just helped us out. and this is how i knew what was going on.
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>> who, recognizing an injustice, offered to work for free. >> i knew he was innocent. so my firm spent over 3,000 hours, hired experts, and spent $1 million. but it was the best million dollars i ever spent. ever. it was great. would do it again. >> there is still unfinished business in this story. the family of kent heitholt may have fewer answers now than ten years ago, and calls the latest developments painful. the fergusons have offered a $10,000 reward for tips in the case. >> we hope the heitholt family will get the information that they need to move forward. >> ryan's familiarly also vowed to help free chuck erickson, the man whose testimony put him behind bars in the first place. but for the moment, ryan has some adjusting to do. freedom is sweet. >> the pillows are really big
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and fluffy and i'm not used to that. >> reporter: but as everyone knows, it isn't always straight forward. >> since this morning, i've been stressed out about a few things, which is strange to me, because, you know -- >> stressed out about what? >> i don't know. it's -- it's a whole different life, you know? it's aa whole lot to get used to. and you've got to figure out your way around this world, you know? because i know what to do in prison. i know where to be and when to be there and how to do things. out here, it's -- completely different environment, you know? and i've got to find my way, essentially. so -- >> are you going to ring it? >> one more thing to do. as he launched his brand-new life. visit the grandparents in florida he feared he would never see again. >> this is so strange. it's been so long. >> and so we arranged this. >> papa. >> oh, my god. >> how is it going? >> oh! i love you. >> i love you, man. how you been? >> i'm fine.
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>> oh. good. >> hug mom. >> ryan! it's been a long time, hasn't it? >> too long. >> let me look at you. >> and then the next morning, the sun rose over the sea. and ryan ferguson breathed in the ocean air, felt the world open around him, touched his feet to the warm sand. >> haven't been here for years. >> and life began anew. >> to freedom and a great family. >> that's all
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>> nbc bay area news starts now. good evening and thanks for joining us. >> we are tracking the storm but the worst is over. one of the placest hit hardest was the california coast. waves batted the shoreline put something people in danger. >> forest was e

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